Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Formula for Storytelling in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

One of the things I love about instructional design is that it engages me both analytically and creatively.

The up-front analysis and the evaluation components allow me to flex my analytical muscles. The challenge of applying evidence-based practices to a defined set of performance requirements prompts me to stretch creatively.

Speaking of creativity, it seems that one of the hot topics in the field is storytelling. The field generally views storytelling as an effective way to engage learners (who doesn't like a good story?), present content in context, and increase learning retention.

How can we use stories in eLearning?
Here are a few ideas that come to my mind...

  • Capture interest, build excitement, or gain buy-in. A while back, I designed training for a new product after it went through a year of testing. The training included a story about a customer whose life was improved by the product.

  • Illustrate a concept. Last year, I was involved in developing training for work-at-home employees. The training included a story about an employee who went from working in an office to working the same job from home. The story followed the employee through a typical day, so future work-at-home employees could clearly imagine their job at home (including routine job tasks, perks of working at home, challenges of working at home, and how to overcome those challenges).

  • Relay tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, unlike facts or procedures, is a type of knowledge that is often difficult to explain. When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who would often answer student questions about consulting with a story. It was a very effective way to share knowledge that was intuitive for him and may have been challenging to clearly explain in a more generic way.

  • Serve as the foundation for problem-centered or discovery learning. When a client asked our team to develop a sales skills enhancement course, we opted to base the training on the methods of the most successful sales person in the department. We included her stories to demonstrate key skills, and we used her stories as the foundation for a few problem-centered lessons. It worked like a charm.
What makes a good story?
The anatomy of a good story is the same, regardless of whether you're writing short stories for entertainment or training purposes. According to most sources, the basic elements a story should include are:
  1. Setting
  2. Characters
  3. Event
  4. Development (actions and consequences)
  5. Climax (lesson learned or problem solved)
  6. Ending

For a very short example of this formula in action, revisit the Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need post on this blog, which starts with a story that captures interest and illustrates a concept.

So what's your story?
If you use stories in training another way, please share! Or, if you have an example of how you used a story in training, we'd love to hear that too.


  1. I have used stories of lawsuits won and lost due to punctuation. It's a great way to teach the importance of punctuation in writing!

  2. I use digital stories for Teacher Training and Inspiration, e.g. Making a Teacher (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFuVvKKG7Pc), Starfish story (http://marynabadenhorst.globalteacher.org.au/2009/09/23/starfish/), Inspirational Quotes (http://marynabadenhorst.globalteacher.org.au/2009/09/24/my-favourite-educational-quotes/), Story of Chicken and Pig (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPoBA18Q_3g&feature=channel). For those that would like to learn how to make similar digital stories, full instructions here http://marynabadenhorst.globalteacher.org.au/2009/09/07/digital-stories-using-photostory/

  3. The shortest distance between two people is a story. I feel at times we get caught up in the storytelling part of stories and forget that triggering stories, eliciting stories from others is where some of the greatest power lies. Stories work because of their emergent capabilities. Designing with stories entices us to think less in terms of encoding our messages, or just entertaining people, its about the implicit capacities of stories to touch people's imaginations. Behavior and influence occurs best when it touches in a personal way moved by us. We connect learning dots not just in our heads. That leads to knowledge. Performance and changes in behavior sit in our imaginations and hearts (and I'm not just talking about soft and fuzzy stuff either).

    Stories inciting insight and I feel that's one of the greatest things we can do as learning designers.

    Here's a link to a paper on nine ground rules for working with stories:


    And here's a link to collection of two minute vlogging stories for stimulating rich conversations:



Thank you for your comments.